This exhibition was on view May 17 – December 29, 2013.

Click on the screen above to see WHYY’s video about Through the Looking Lens.

Read about The Drawing Room, a hands-on exhibit of drawing instruments in conjunction with Through the Looking Lens.

Click on the screen above to see the introductory slideshow to the exhibition.

Click here for a review of the exhibition in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Click here to listen to a WHYY radio piece on old and new drawing instruments

Through the Looking Lens


Left: Cornelius Varley, Chara Vulgaris with one globule open (male reproductive part), 1842, APS
Right: Cornelius Varley, Varley’s Patent Graphic Telescope and drawing-table stand, APS

Down the Rabbit Hole with Cornelius Varley
When Lewis Carroll sent Alice down the rabbit hole, he imagined a drink that would make her smaller than a mouse and a cake that would extend her body to the size of “the largest telescope that ever was.”

Left: Cornelius Varley, Nitella Translucens,1833, APS. Detail showing translucency and the inner circulation of fluids.
Right: Cornelius Varley, Chara Vulgaris, 1833 & 1844, APS

Through the Looking Lens highlights stunning watercolors by British artist/inventor Cornelius Varley (1781-1873) that range from vast panoramas rendered small to microscopic algae writ large. But unlike the enchantments of Carroll’s imagination, Varley’s wondrous images were of real things. He captured them before the advent of photography, using drawing instruments he invented, along with optical lenses he crafted and employed with great skill.

Cornelius Varley, Snowdon from the Banks of Moel, courtesy Lowell Libson

Varley is known as an artist, but this exhibition is the first ever to showcase him as the inventor and maker of drawing instruments integral to his artistic and scientific practices. Through the Looking Lens reveals the full breadth of Varley’s work at the intersection of art and science. Similar to many early APS members in the 18th and 19th centuries—polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Smith Barton, David Rittenhouse, and Alexander Bache—Varley effortlessly traversed the boundaries of multiple disciplines, propelled by his enormous inquisitiveness. Like Carroll’s Alice, Varley was “curiouser and curiouser.”

Left: Cornelius Varley, A measured drawing of a skull, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Lowell Libson, Ltd.     Right: Cornelius Varley, “Mr. C. Fary’s Teeth Forceps” from Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, vol. 44, 1825, plate 8, APS

On view is Varley’s Patent Graphic Telescope (PGT)—his most important drawing tool—along with engravings of the vial microscope attachment he invented for his work on algae. Other intriguing works on paper include Varley’s drawings of magnified pieces of mummy cloth, a human skull, cork balls in motion, and original illustrations that were transformed into etchings for mass publication in scientific journals. Varley’s handwritten, autobiographical narrative, also on display, provides context for his extraordinary, multi-faceted life.

Cornelius Varley, Narrative, detail, APS

Varley’s inventions were part of a larger scientific quest to see and record the natural world in ever more exact ways.

Cornelius Varley, Talsarnau, North Wales, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Lowell Libson in honor of Charles Ryskamp

The PGT was superseded during Varley’s lifetime by the invention of the photographic camera in 1839, but his images poignantly demonstrate that what we now call a “photographic” way of seeing had been anticipated and cultivated by artists and scientists long before the advent of photography itself.

Maull & Polyblank, Cornelius Varley (at approximately 80 years old), © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Support provided in part by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.